So I didn’t get into Ko – because of their (admittedly frustrating when it works against you) egalitarian system and “leave a message” phone policy I unfortunately had to give up a lunch reservation the day prior when my friend bailed. Disappointed but still a fan of Chang’s concepts I tried out Milk Bar and was met with a bit of hit and miss – an average pork bun for a high price and a great slice of pie for a good price. Still not dissuaded and having plans with my friends for the Yankees game that evening that precluded a long and elaborate dinner I figured Ssam would be a safe bet for an early dinner (after an admittedly leisurely lunch at Le Bernardin and some less-than-stellar museum hopping and shopping earlier in the day.) Looking into the appropriate Subway Line to get me to the stadium I was glad to see the 4 ran right past Ssam and figured I’d easily have an hour for dinner before having to hop the subway. Before dinner I stopped and picked up some game-time snacks at Dessert Club and Build-A-Green Bakery then made my way to Ssam where I walked up literally one minute before they unlocked the doors.
The first one there I was pleasantly surprised by the Led Zeppelin playing across the stereo (Night Flight – followed by Houses of the Holy, 10 Years Gone, and Moby Dick plus some Rush and Stones) and told to sit “wherever I liked.” Wanting to watch the kitchen and chat with the staff I opted for the bar, took a seat, grabbed a menu, and sipped my water (once again, like Noodle Bar, the water-refills were literally nonstop.) Inquiring about the hams and a few other items I opted to go with one appetizer, one main, and save some room for dessert – placing my order I sat back, listened to the great tunes, and watched the place literally fill up within 25 minutes of opening. Chatting with two of my servers about everything from New York to Medicine to music I must admit that although I love formal/classic service, there is something to say about the tattooed hipster servers who keep things extremely professional yet can also interact personally at places like Ssam, CUT, and other “upscale yet trendy) places.
After less than 10 minutes my first dish arrived - pork and foie gras terrine – toasted bread, quince, pickled ramps, and maple. Clearly not the level of pretense laid upon most foie preps, the cold terrine was actually quite bizarre in appearance with “cubes” of foie intermingled in a chopped ham pate. Uncertain what to expect I took a bite and, honestly, was blown away – the taste was not expected. Unthinkably the smoky and textural ham lent a nice foil to the fatty and smooth foie and the two ingredients melded well as a spread for the still-warm bread. Hints of maple, I think blended with the ham, took on a greater accent when the quince jelly was added to the mix while the pickled ramps added another degree of acidic-yet-savory crunch to the dish. Inventive and wonderful – I’d order it again.
Watching the preparation in the wide open kitchen for a bit and chuckling as one of the cooks apparently brewed up some sort of strange cocktail that many of the staff were drinking I sipped my water and chatted with another patron at the bar for about 10 minutes before my main course arrived - bell & evan's fried chicken with ramps, morels, egg. Not generally one to order chicken, after the miraculous piece at Crop two days prior and the accoutrements being two of my very favorite things (morels and eggs) everything about this dish just sounded right – and it was. Flawlessly tender and exquisitely succulent I was actually glad that the server had told me the chicken was a “blend of dark and white basted with pork fat” prior to ordering it or I’d have been dumbfounded as to how someone managed to make white meat so juicy yet crispy and well done. Complemented beautifully with the sensuous and aromatic morels plus fresh and mildly pungent ramps and smoothed out with the creamy egg yolk – arguably the best fried chicken preparation I’ve ever had and challenged only by the miraculous version at San Francisco’s famed Boulevard.
Two stellar courses down I’d already scouted ahead on the menu and read of a dessert simply too unique to pass up. Titled beet and lime ganache - goats milk frozen yogurt, pistachio the dish was actually beautifully creative resembling an artist’s pallet with the ganache painted against one side of the bowl and the yogurt and nuts at the base. Tasting first the ganache I was instantly impressed by the complex interplay of the sour lime and the earthy beet, yet how smooth the overall texture was on the tongue. Next tasting the frozen yogurt and pistachio I was surprised at the overall saltiness but wowed at how the creamy vibrance of the yogurt worked with the crunch and texture of the nuts. Finally, mixing all three components together I truly “got” the dish as everything just worked together to touch every part of the tongue and truly create a whole new dish – difficult to explain but definitely a case where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and the most challenging yet impressive dessert I’d experienced since Providence.
Chatting with my servers a bit more and assured I was headed in the right direction to the Subway I paid my bill and made my departure – the whole meal lasting about 45 minutes but not feeling rushed in any way, shape, or form. Honestly, if Chang didn’t have his reputation – which is well deserved – Ssam, just like noodle bar, would be one of those “neighborhood places” that the locals knew and loved but outsiders never heard about – it just has that feel. Thankfully, though, Chang does have his reputation and outsiders like myself are graced with a chance to experience such “haute-home-style” fusion food.
As previously noted, making my way to the Yankee game with no intention of sampling Stadium Food, I had indeed planned ahead with some travel snacks – the first from Build a Green Bakery. Having read a bit about this organic subsidiary of City Bakery and hearing a stellar review from a friend about their cornbread I made a special point to stop – unfortunately they were out of cornbread…but fortunately they had blueberry cornbread (even better!) Purchasing one to go for $3 and consuming it hours later in Yankee Stadium I have to say – for vegan, that is some damned good Cornbread. Texturally complex with the expected cornmeal mouth-feel and additional whole kernels of corn contrasting with the super sweet and fresh whole blueberries - while not quite as good as Arizmendi’s Cherry Scone Cornbread, certainly excellent and reason enough to stop back and check out their other options.
The second snacks, also much hyped by the same friend as well as members of various food-circles, were two cupcakes from Dessert Club Chickalicious. Claimed by many to be the best cupcakes in Manhattan, and already having tried some darned good ones at Babycakes and Bouchon, I have to admit I was a bit surprised at the tiny size of the shop and the fact that there was a short line waiting to get in. Browsing the menu it definitely seemed like “my kinda place” but I wanted something portable so the molten cake, bread pudding, and others would have to wait.
Making my way in I was greeted by a (admittedly overworked) somewhat surly employee who clearly wanted me in, out, and on my way quickly and actively sighed when I took a picture of the cupcake case. $1.60 for the Red Velvet and $2.25 for the s’mores I simply handed the fella $4 and made my way out.
Surviving the 4-train to Yankee Stadium after dinner at Ssam I first tasted the Red Velvet while walking from the train to the stadium – tiny, light, and fluffy I could have easily managed the cake in a single bite but instead held out for two. Appropriately cocoa-accented but with an odd – slickness, if you will – to the frosting – it almost tasted Crisco which I’m sure it wasn’t…good but not great. The second cupcake, which made it until the 4th inning, was vastly superior and actually one of the best cupcakes I’ve ever had. Featuring a gingery and moist cake beyond reproach, dense chocolate ganache, and a topping that tasted (and had the texture) of burnt marshmallows with a woody tone and all – excellent. Definitely enough reason to go back and try some other specialty cupcakes in the future, or to sample the real-deal Chickalicious across the street.
Happy and full the Yankees blasted some early inning runs while the game remained largely uneventful (and got quite cold) until the 7th when the Twins tried to make it interesting again – a great food day in total, featuring 3 Michelin starred Chefs, three cupcakes, and a whole lot of good memories and tastes.